Ten or 15 years ago, most pet owners would likely not have considered treating their animals for cancer, but that is changing, says Valerie MacDonald, a veterinary oncologist at the University of Saskatchewan’s Western College of Veterinary Medicine. Cancer treatment for pets can be expensive, but even if it gives owners an extra year with their loved one, today most would pursue it, she says.
However, this increased interest in cancer therapy for companion animals hasn’t been matched by an increase in training opportunities for Canadian veterinary students in this burgeoning field, she says.
Most students at Canada’s four veterinary schools receive lectures in veterinary oncology in their third and fourth years. Dr. MacDonald would like to expand on that by establishing Canada’s first residency program in veterinary oncology some time in the next two years (following her maternity leave). It would entail three years of specialized training for students who have already completed a veterinary degree.
Many Canadians currently go to U.S. veterinary schools or private practices to pursue oncology residencies and end up staying there, says Dr. MacDonald. She spent six years working in Wisconsin after doing a residency in veterinary oncology at the University of Wisconsin.
Dr. MacDonald is the first veterinary oncologist at the Western College of Veterinary Medicine and one of only four in all of Western Canada – three others work in private practice in Calgary. Her interest in small-animal oncology began when she was a student at the University of Prince Edward Island’s Atlantic Veterinary College. During a summer work placement, she saw a golden retriever that had been treated for lymphoma recover very well. This convinced her that there was an important role for cancer treatment in companion animals.
Dogs are also great models for cancer research in humans, she says. Animal oncology could therefore potentially advance cancer therapy in humans.